Courtesy of my wife (who has been to this bookstore), here’s a fascinating piece on the iconic English-language bookstore “Shakespeare and Company” in Paris that folks like Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs used to frequent. It’s operated by the eccentric, 98-year old George Whitman and his 30-year old (!) daughter Sylvia. The next time I go to Paris I will have to stop by.
I’ve been following the bankruptcy of Borders for a while now (see here for my last post on the subject), and came across another good piece that analyzes the issue. A second new analysis by the former head of Borders UK examines some of the reasons for the bankruptcy. The short answer is that, well, it’s complicated and a result of a series of screw-ups on Borders’ part that go back years.
In any case, it’s sad that so many brick-and-mortar bookstores will be closing (and no, I doubt that this first wave of 200+ closures will be the last), particularly since Borders and Barnes & Noble have already helped drive so many independent bookstores out of business. I suspect we’re going to see an increasing number of communities around the country lacking convenient access to physical bookstores. (For an example of one such community, you have only to look at the 200,000-person city of Laredo, Texas, which lost its last bookstore in 2009. There is hope on that front, however, as Books-a-Million has recently announced that it will be opening a new store in Laredo.)
It’s funny, my wife and I went to our local Borders’ store closing event last weekend, and pretty much everything in the store was marked down by 20%. The place was absolutely packed, and the checkout line verged on a Christmas Eve level of customers. The whole thing was silly though, because after you factor in the local 6.75% sales tax, people were clamoring to buy books at around 15% full retail. Which is silly, given how frequent 33-50% off store coupons have been, and how deep Amazon’s discounts are. Why would I want to buy a book for 15% off, when I could wait a few days and get the same book for around 30% off? One of the exceptions was the magazine section — magazines were marked down 40%, and I did buy one of them. It highlights the problem that brick-and-mortar new bookstores have: why exactly would customers buy books from them? Businesses win customers because they either provide a unique good or service, or can beat their competitors on price or customer service. And providing a nice browsing experience/environment and decent customer service just isn’t enough to survive, I suspect.
As a follow-up to the last post about Borders going bankrupt, I’d like to provide a link to another blog that puts what we’re seeing in the book retail industry in its proper context. As Harry MCracken, the author of that piece, notes, the possible death throes of Borders and Barnes & Noble are symptomatic of much larger trends in the retail industry. Changes in the industry — and by that I largely mean store closures — seem to be accelerating in recent years, but the process began at least eight years ago. Between changing consumer demands, the increasing availability and desirability of digital rather than physical media, and Internet retailers like Amazon, brick-and-mortar retailers of physical media are having a rough time of it. I have no doubt that some of them will survive, in some form, but it’s going to be a painful transition, with the outcome still unclear. I think it’s safe to say that the physical media retail industry (books, music, movies, etc.) of 2020 is going to look very different from today.
As I mentioned the other day, Borders is going into bankruptcy. This has been confirmed today — and I recommend the Blomberg article I just linked, as it has some very good discussion on the issue. As part of its reorganization, Borders will be closing up to 275 stores (out of 642 stores total). The one nearest me is one of the ones that will be shut down. Wonder if they’re going to have a massive sale or if the remaining stock will be dispersed to other stores? Here is a link to the official list of stores to be closed. Oh and this is all going to happen very rapidly: these are just the stores that are going to be shut down by April 2011. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a second wave of stores to be closed before the end of the year. I can see why they’re doing this: their assets and their debts are even and they owe vendors more than $300 million and have been missing payments on the debt. Not a pretty picture.
Should be really interesting to see how this all shakes out, and what the effects are on the rest of the book retail industry.
So a week ago, I blogged about the future of Borders and how its prospects looked bleak. There was speculation that Borders might soon go into bankruptcy. Well, now it looks like Borders will likely begin bankruptcy proceedings as soon as early next week, with an eye to closing a third of its 674 Borders and Waldenbooks stores and laying off thousands of workers. One analyst quoted in that linked article speculates that “I think that there will be a 50% reduction in bricks-and-mortar shelf space for books within five years, and 90% within 10 years,” says Mike Shatzkin, chief executive of Idea Logical Co., a New York consulting firm. “Book stores are going away.”
That sounds a little bleak to me, but then again, I’m a book guy, so maybe I’m just trying to see it more positively here. Heck, maybe this will even ease a little of the pressure on Barnes and Noble in the long-run, allowing it to ease the pressure a bit. Amazon will certainly profit from this. And who knows, maybe the fact that many communities will have fewer brick and mortar stores from whom to buy books will hasten the rise of ebooks.
It’s all just speculation at this point, but I think it’s safe to say that the American book retail industry is in for “interesting times,” in the Chinese curse sense.
A long time ago, there used to be many more independent bookstores — new and used — than there are today. A host of factors are responsible for this turn of events, but one of the most important is that we (I’m speaking of the U.S. here) now have two major, national chains of new book retailers: Borders and Barnes & Noble. The expansion and consolidation of these two book industry giants have forced many smaller chains out of business. (Remember B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, for example? Those were the two big bookstore chains in Virginia Beach when I was growing up. B. Dalton was acquired by Barnes & Noble in 1987 and the last fifty stores were liquidated in 2010. Waldenbooks was bought by Borders, but most of the remaining stores have since been “rebranded.”) The “Wal-Mart Effect” of Borders and Barnes & Noble, plus the rise of Amazon.com and the Internet, have all served to exert tremendous pressure on independent bookstores, and many of them no longer exist, at least as brick and mortar stores.
So why do we care about the current state of the book retail industry? Well, there are lots of reasons for book-lovers to care, more than I’ll go into today, but one reason I’d like to mention is that both Borders and Barnes & Noble are in serious financial trouble. And by that I mean that it would not surprise industry watchers if either or both entered bankruptcy within the next 12-24 months.
Here’s one more piece of evidence for that: For the second month in a row, Borders has announced that it is delaying payments to vendors and landlords. Borders can’t pay its debts, at least not on time or in full. And keep in mind, this is for the months of December and January. If a retailer can’t pay its debts during the Christmas season, how’s it going to continue paying them during the worst retail months of the year? Something’s got to give, folks. Borders and Barnes & Noble have helped close down a lot of bookstores over the years, and now they are in serious trouble. The face of book retail on a national level is going to look very different five years from now.
Here’s a great, lengthy article on the bookstore scene and book-related events in San Francisco in Sunday’s New York Times (I believe that a free login is required, so if you don’t already have one and don’t want to do that, contact me and I’ll get you a copy). I haven’t made it back out to San Francisco in a few years, but this piece definitely makes me want to do a bookstore tour of the West Coast.
And here’s an article on a project that is doing an analysis of the titles of all of the 1.7 million British books published in the nineteenth century. Everyone’s always fascinated by what those wacky Victorians were thinking. Frankly, I don’t know that this tells us much — we’d really need to do a content analysis of the works rather than just do keyword checks on the titles for deeper insights — but it’s interesting anyway.
Here’s a site that my wife passed along to me: “book lovers never go to bed alone.” It currently includes 289 (!) pages of photos of book store and library shelves. Lots and lots of gorgeous shelves of books. My one complaint is that it doesn’t provide annotations for the locations (at least not that I can spot). That’s mildly annoying because I’m pretty sure I’ve actually been in one of the book stores depicted on the front page (the one with the sign that says “More Books Downstairs.”)
In any case, enjoy!
N.B. There is, of course, no actual pornographic content on this site.
Edited to add: Through a little Internet research, my lovely wife (“biblioregina”?) has uncovered the identity of that bookstore we both recognized but couldn’t recall the name of. It is, of course, the very nice City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco.
I just wanted to give a quick shout-out to a Scottish independent bookstore specializing in science fiction that I have recently had the pleasure of doing business: Transreal Fiction, run by a gentleman named Mike Calder. Here’s the page on how to order the signed books.
Iain Banks, Charles Stross, Ken Macleod, Brian Ruckley, and Hannu Rajaniemi all live near the store and have kindly agreed to autograph copies of their books for Transreal’s customers.
I ordered (and just received) the following signed books (all UK editions):
* The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
* The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross
* The Quantum Thief and Words of Birth and Death (a chapbook) by Hannu Rajaniemi
Of course, you’re probably all aware of Banks and Stross already (if not, please check them out). The only name on that list you might not be familiar with is Hannu Rajaniemi. He’s new to me as well, but a friend of mine in the book retail industry has described his first novel as “probably the hottest science fiction release in the last 5-10 years.” You heard it here first, folks. So I look forward to reading his stuff.
Service was extremely courteous and fast. Packaging of the order was excellent; it took me about five minutes armed with a utility knife to cut my way through to the books. I’ll certainly be ordering more from Transreal in the future.
Please note: I have no affiliation with Transreal Fiction, I’m just a happy customer.